A Catholic nun has revealed that she secretly blessed a same-sex couple 15 years ago – long before the Pope Francis indicated that same-sex couples could receive blessings – and she’d do it again.
Roman Catholic Sister Anna Koop blessed the couple, one of whom was a personal friend, 15 years ago because they were in love and “Jesus did not say love was confined.”
The 85-year-old told CBS News that she was aware she might face consequences from the Church, but went ahead with with the private blessing anyway. In her own words, she “blessed the love they celebrate”.
Sister Koop, who became a nun in the late 1960s and has spent her career mainly in Denver, focussing on homelessness and poverty, said the Pope’s support of same-sex couple blessings made her feel that her blessing 15 years ago has been supported.
She said she never experienced consequences over the secret blessing and still keeps in touch with the couple. They are still together and have two children.
Sister Koop doesn’t regret her actions.
“I did it once and I would do it again,” she said.
In the Church of England, however, blessing services for same-sex couples may be a considerable way off.
The Bishop of London, Dame Sarah Mullally, has said it’s unlikely that such services will take place before 2025.
The delay comes amid what Mullally called a “time of uncertainty” for the Church due to division over the General Synod – the Church of England’s decision-making body – announcing in February it would continue to prevent priests ordaining same-sex marriages, but blessings would be offered instead.
In a move towards increased inclusivity, in January the Church of England formally apologised for its historically “hostile” treatment of LGBTQ+ people.
Pope Francis, the 86-year-old head of the worldwide Catholic Church, met with the Maryland-based LGBTQ+ Catholic organization New Ways Ministry at his Vatican residence on October 17. While the organization said that the 50-minute meeting “reflects the steady acceptance of Catholic officials to LGBTQ+ issues and ministry,” the pope still has a mixed record on LGBTQ+ issues.
The pope reportedly invited the group to his residence two years after the group’s co-founder, Sister Jeannine Gramick, sent a letter introducing herself and her group to the religious leader. The letter began a friendly exchange of correspondence between the two, leading the pope to call her a “valiant woman” and to congratulate her on her 50 years of LGBTQ+ ministry, New Ways Ministry wrote in a statement.
“The meeting was very emotional for me,” Gramick said. “From the day he was elected, I have loved and admired Pope Francis because of his humility, his love for the poor, and for those shunned by society. He is the human face of Jesus in our era.”
New Ways Ministry’s Executive Director Francis DeBernardo said, “This meeting was an affirmation not only of Sister Jeannine and New Ways Ministry but of the thousands upon thousands of LGBTQ+ people, parishes, schools, pastoral ministers, and religious communities who have been tirelessly working for equality, and who often experienced the great disapproval and ostracization…. Meeting with Pope Francis is a great encouragement for Sister Jeannine and New Ways Ministry to continue our work in the Catholic Church.”
In 1984, Washington, D.C. Archbishop James Hickey encouraged the group’s founders to disassociate with the group, according to The Washington Blade. In 1999, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the head of the Vatican’s doctrinal office, issued an order forbidding the group’s cofounders from doing any pastoral work with queer people. Ratzinger would later become Pope Benedict XVI and serve from 2005 until his historic resignation in 2013 due to a “lack of strength of mind and body” in his old age.
In January, he called laws criminalizing homosexuality “unjust” and insisted that God loves all his children just as they are. He also called on Catholic bishops to welcome LGBTQ+ people into the Church. In 2020, he also said that nations should recognize civil unions for same-sex couples because they “have a right to a family.”
Though Pope Francis has been praised as a progressive face for the centuries-old church, his words have revealed his slow, gradual warming toward LGBTQ+ individuals, even though official church teachings remain steadfastly anti-LGBTQ+.
Last week at the Synod on Synodality, delegates deliberated on contentious issues in the Catholic Church, including the inclusion of L.G.B.T. people, the global migration crisis, women’s roles in the church’s mission, and the plights of the world’s most impoverished people. The question of women’s ordination to the diaconate also gained prominence as participants explored the issue of women’s authority within the church. At the start of the Synod’s third week, a synod organizer told Colleen, “This is where this gets interesting.”
On this week’s episode of “Inside the Vatican,” host Colleen Dulle and veteran Vatican correspondent Gerard O’Connell sit down in Rome for their first face-to-face podcast in four years to cover what’s being said, and how participants are mitigating the pitfalls of polarization as they converse.
Colleen and Gerry discuss how the confidentiality expected of synod participants has helped to facilitate respectful conversation around hot-button issues at the synod. The discussion on L.G.B.T. people focused on a “question of truth versus love,” explained Colleen, which allowed for “dynamic discussion.” Gerry explains that, beyond any particular issue, the key theme of the discussion on communion was inclusion, which allowed the conversation to range from the discussions around sexual identity and relationships to inclusion of migrants within the church.
After concluding their discussion on communion, synod participants initiated their discussion around the theme of “co-responsibility in mission,” or as Colleen put it, “How can we better share gifts and tasks in the service of the Gospel?” This opened up dialogue on the role of women in the church, and although conversations are ongoing, there was consensus that “there must be greater recognition of the ministry, the role that women can play in the church,” said Gerry.
In the second half of the show, Colleen and Gerry discuss the Vatican’s response to the ongoing situation in Israel and Gaza. “The Vatican is walking a delicate diplomatic line here,” said Colleen, explaining that Holy See diplomacy would not want to come down on any particular side. The Vatican has always maintained its advocacy for a two-state solution and special status for Jerusalem, a sacred city for the Abrahamic faiths: Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Pope Francis has appealed to Hamas to release Israeli hostages and urged for humanitarian corridors to be made in Gaza to bring in emergency relief aid and help refugees escape. He has also called for a day of prayer, fasting, and abstinence for peace on October 17, the day this podcast airs.
The Catholic church today is deeply polarised. This has created doctrinal fissures that are seemingly unbridgeable.
There are many rumbling contestations on questions of identity, mission, faith and morality. Other questions touch on pastoral life, the nature of marriage and family life, denial of holy communion to divorced and remarried Catholics, clerical celibacy, authority in the church and reproductive rights.
The church in Africa hasn’t been spared these issues. In parts of the continent, the challenges of ethnocentrism, abuse of religious authority and internal division are hurting the church’s credibility and effectiveness. And some national churches seem silent on rising crises of democracy and leadership across Africa.
There have always been divisions in the church, but its effectiveness and credibility in Africa have been affected by clannish divisions and internal fights over money, power and position. This raises the question: how can the church be the conscience of the continent if it’s ravaged by the same internal problems found in political institutions?
Most of the controversies that faced the church in its first 500 years were resolved through basic synodal principles – the word synod means “walking together”. These principles were developed by African scholars and church leaders like Cyprian, Athanasius, Aurelius and Augustine.
Sadly, in the process so far, there seems to be no clear African agenda articulated through African Catholic church leaders.
I have observed the preparations of Africa for this synod. I’m afraid that the mistakes made by the continent’s church leaders in previous synods – including two held specially to address Africa’s challenges in 1994 and 2010 – are being repeated.
The African continental meeting that took place in Ethiopia in March 2023 didn’t come up with a clear agenda to address the challenges facing African Catholics.
African delegates are faced with three major challenges going into the current consultations. First, they are simply responding to what is tabled in the working document for the synod rather than setting their own agenda. Second, they are treating the continent like a homogeneous entity. Third, they’re failing to demonstrate the changes that African Catholic leaders wish to make in their leadership styles, and pastoral and social ministries in local dioceses and religious congregations, without constantly looking up to Rome for instructions and directions.
The latest synodal process began in 2021 with grassroots consultations, and national and continental assemblies. It has now entered the most decisive moment.
First, African delegates at the synod are not formulating their own agenda. During the two consultations on the family in 2014 and 2015, Africans framed their responses to the synod’s working document as a rejection of a western agenda for change to the traditional family. They pushed back against a perceived attempt to impose on the rest of the church a new understanding of marriage that includes the blessing of same-sex relations.
African delegates have failed to present their position on how to deal with issues of marriage, polygamy, denial of communion to polygamists, childlessness, burial rites and widowhood practices.
Second, the problems that face Africa are often localised. They require contextualised solutions. Yet, African delegates often treat the continent as homogeneous, with similar social, economic and political challenges. In the 2015 synod, Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea appealed to the delegates from Africa to speak with one voice, as if Africa had one voice.
There is a need to present Africa in its diversity and richness. The churches of Europe, for instance, have always presented their issues in a more localised, national and specific sense – the German Catholic Church is implementing its own synodal path. African delegates must resist the continued colonial structure, racialised thinking and mentality that sees Africa as one country rather than a continent of diversity and dynamic pluralism.
Finally, African delegates must move away from constantly asking Rome and the pope to help solve the issues within the church in Africa. The delegates must focus attention on the current situation of the church and society in Africa, and how African Catholics can solve their own problems by courageously confronting the internal challenges facing the church in the continent.
The Catholic church is witnessing its fastest growth in Africa (2.1% between 2019 and 2020). Out of a global population of 1.36 billion Catholics, 236 million are African (20% of the total). This growth is happening alongside a rise in poverty, social unrest, coups, wars and illiberal democracy.
African delegates must demonstrate a deeper understanding of the continent’s social and religious challenges. They must capture the hopes and dreams of their congregants, and articulate how the Catholic church can support social transformation through authentic and credible religious experiences and practices.
The Catholic church in Africa must become a champion for human rights, good governance and women’s empowerment. It needs to model the image of an inclusive church in its structures and priorities. It needs to nurture a new generation of Africans who understand the diverse challenges facing the continent and seek African solutions.
In early August, on a bluff above the ocean in Baja California, two of my favorite people took their wedding vows at dusk.
My niece Krissa and her partner Julia had asked seven friends to offer short reflections on seven touchstones for a successful marriage. The friends spoke of authenticity, vulnerability, generosity, community, balance, humor and home. It was a lovely ceremony, and when the brides kissed, it was a peak emotional moment for all of us, and proof — as if we needed it — that same-sex marriage is every bit as romantic and meaningful as other marriages.
The glow lasted until I returned from Mexico to Los Angeles and started noticing a stream of emailed fundraising appeals from a man named Brian Brown, homophobic founder of the National Organization for Marriage.
Brown’s organization fights against same-sex unions, and his emails felt like a personal affront. Seriously? Are these people never going to give up the fight against same-sex marriage?
In December, after all, President Joe Biden signed into law the Respect for Marriage Act, a bipartisan bill that codifies same-sex and interracial marriage. Even Pope Francis understands that marriage equality is here to stay. One of the items on the agenda of the 2023 global gathering of Catholics in Rome is whether same-sex couples deserve the church’s blessing. (This is not at all the same as allowing gay Catholics to marry in the church, but it is a slight softening of a very hard line against it.)
However, there are a few reasons why same-sex marriage suddenly feels tenuous to some.
First, the overturning of Roe vs. Wade by the Supreme Court’s ultraconservative majority has breathed new life into not just antiabortion crusades, but other anti-equality movements as well.
Justice Clarence Thomas’ concurring opinion in Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization suggested the court might want to look at other seemingly settled issues, such as the legalization of contraception and gay marriage. Many proponents of gay rights were shaken to the core by Thomas’ claims in his Dobbs concurrence. If gay marriage were to be overturned, how would the legal rights of same-sex parents be affected? What would happen to their kids? What should they do now to protect their families?
How unfriendly could the court be to same-sex marriage if the current justices take another crack at it? Here’s a hint: In 2019, the National Organization for Marriage’s Brown tweeted a photo of himself with Justices Samuel Alito and Brett Kavanaugh, three weeks after they heard arguments in Bostock vs. Clayton County, perhaps the most important gay rights case since the court legalized gay marriage in 2015.
Alito, Kavanaugh and Thomas would go on to be the three dissenters in the Bostock decision, which found that the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects workers from discrimination based on being gay, lesbian or transgender.
I guess it’s to be expected that Brown and company would try to capitalize on fears of drag queens, librarians and gender-affirming doctors. But what was particularly offensive was the campaign’s disingenuous argument that gay marriage has weakened the institution of marriage, an outcome Brown takes credit for predicting.
As proof, Brown offers a recent Pew Research Center survey of 5,000 adults that had some “shocking” results: Only 23 percent of Americans now believe that being married is extremely or very important to live a fulfilling life, and only 26 percent believe that having children is extremely or very important.
He describes this as “a tragic collapse of public belief” in traditional marriage and parenthood.
I’ll give Brown this much: Even he acknowledges that a different Pew poll also found that 61 percent of adults believe that same-sex marriage has been good for society.
If most Americans think our country is better for allowing people to marry whomever they love, that hardly signals a collapse that is “tragic.” Perhaps the better description is “long overdue.”